What It’s Really Like to Visit the Himba People in Namibia

I had two very distinct impressions of the Himba when I met them: 1) the women have the most incredible hair I’ve ever seen and 2) they’re not shy.

Let me explain.  The Himba are a semi-nomadic tribe living in the northwest region of Kunene, also referred to as Kaokoland in Namibia.  This region only has a population density of one person per every 2 square kilometres.  As a result of their isolation and secluded lifestyle they still hold to their culture and traditional way of life.

Famous Himba hair that is covered in ochre
Famous Himba hair that is covered in ochre.  I asked about their hair and learned that the ends are fake hair.  When this women saw that I was trying to photograph her hair, she kept checking my pictures until she was satisfied that I had done her hair justice.

I know it’s rude to stare, but I couldn’t help it.  I was transfixed at the Himba woman who greeted us with her ochre covered hair. I had never seen anything like it.

Meeting the Himba can also be a bit daunting though as Stone, the videographer on our group found out.  She hopped in beside him, fluttering her eyelashes. Several minutes later she told the driver in her native tongue to tell him that he could rest his head on her shoulder if he wanted.  A very now uncomfortable Stone diverted his eyes from her naked chest and replied No thank you, I have a girlfriend.  Not to be deterred, and much to the amusement of the rest of our group, she persisted while the driver translating. Although no translation was needed to know that she had a thing for Stone.  Or at least she did from our western perspective.  Perhaps her behaviour meant something else only to the Himbas.

Stone making friends with a Himba woman.
Stone making friends with a Himba woman.

We hopped off the jeep, arriving at a village where we were greeted by more shirtless Himbas.  Each person came up to each of us, greeted us with a handshake while stating their name, their eyes questioning us for our names. It was an intense look, one that seemed to penetrate right through you.  I’ll admit the look made me slightly uncomfortable, although I get the impression they were trying to be welcoming.

Mariana demonstrating how Himba women cover themselves in otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre
Mariana demonstrating how Himba women cover themselves in otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre

Next, Mariana an 18 year old Himba girl proceeded to demonstrate how the women cover themselves with otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre.  It gives the skin a reddish tinge, and symbolizes the redness of the earth and the colour of blood which symbolizes life.  This is the Himba ideal standard of beauty – and not one I’ve seen anywhere else. This is also how the women clean themselves. They do not bathe, that’s reserved for the men only.

Ankle bracelets protect against venomous snakes and other animals in Namibia
Ankle bracelets protect against venomous snakes and other animals in Namibia

If their habits seemed strange to us, they could say the same about us.  Mariana asked each of us how old we were and if were married and had children.  She kept shaking her head in disbelief as each of us said we didn’t have children.  Himbas marry quite young and also have children at a young age.

Child dancing in front of a hut in the Kunene Region of Namibia
I loved watching this little boy dance. He had rhythm and really seemed to be enjoying himself.

Without a doubt interacting with the children were my favourite part of my visit.  They were expressive and much like the first Himba lady we met who was crushing on Stone, not shy.

Himba boy
Himba boy

Next up we headed over to another hut where the rest of the tribe had set up a make-shift market selling their hand-made goods.  I did buy a couple of things and afterwards also made a donation when they danced for us but felt uncomfortable.  Was this responsible tourism? It wasn’t like the time I’d spent earlier in Etosha National Park, or my visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. To me, it’s a grey area.  The Himba directly benefit monetarily from tourists.  They receive money from tourist visits and the drivers bring in heavy goods like bags of rice which save the women a day of walking. On the other hand, it’s very strange when a child who’s only contact with the outside world is tourists, tries to flick the screen on your iPhone to make the photo bigger.  He didn’t quite have the technique down, but he certainly understood the concept. You could argue that  change is coming one way or another isn’t it?  On the other hand, shouldn’t  tourists try and not accelerate it? Just let it happen on its own and to learn from it? But then what about the opportunity to interact with a culture so different from your own? Or are we just romanticizing the Himba? I couldn’t make up my mind  about whether my visit was responsible tourism and several months later, it still leaves me  unsettled.

The Himbas selling their handicrafts at the end of  our tour.
The Himbas selling their handicrafts at the end of our tour.

Know Before You Visit the Himba People:

  • Visits are only possible at certain times throughout the year due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle.
  • It’s possible to visit the Himba from a variety of companies of which the list can be found on Nambia Tourism’s site.
  • The cheapest way to get to the remote Kunene Region is to drive, but fly-in safaris are also available.
  • I recommend staying at the Grootberg Lodge where we stayed.  I loved my stay here.  Note:  there are no fences so it’s possible to encounter wild animals on the hotel grounds.  Apparently there’s a leopard who enjoys hanging out by the pool at night.

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About Author

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Laurel
Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their hiking, cycling and wildlife vacations in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her hiking in the mountains on most weekends.

Comments

November 27, 2013
What a fascinating read!! Love learning about all the different cultures and traditions and lifestyles around the world!!
November 27, 2013
What a beautiful and insightful trip that must have been. I can see why you may have been discouraged though. The world keeps on shrinking, eventually tribes like the Himba will no longer exist as they do now.
December 9, 2013
@Jessica - Unfortunately, I think you're right, which will be a real shame.
November 28, 2013
Your photos Laurel are great and very interesting to learn more about the Himba. I agree that visiting sounds like a grey area - and you wonder how much longer they will maintain their lifestyle. Will it be gone in 25 years?? That hair is something else as are the ankle bracelets.
December 9, 2013
@Leigh - Thanks. I too worry that it will be gone in 25 years, or less, but really hope that's not the case. The hair was incredible. I've never seen anything like it.
November 28, 2013
I understand why you feel unsettled, I can see your points... I'm unsure what the "right" answer is myself, here. But at least you try to be reflected and think about it, there are enough of those who don't even do that... It was nevertheless a very interesting read with some really great pictures. Thanks for sharing your trip :-)
December 9, 2013
@Annie - Well at least it sparked a discussion, which is something.
November 29, 2013
It certainly is a grey area, Laurel. I find these 'visits' very uncomfortable because they remind me of the times when I was on the other side. Now that I'm the one doing the visiting, the looking, I feel like a voyeur. The 'relationship,' such that it is, always feels unequal.
December 9, 2013
@Marcia - That must be a really interesting perspective, having been on both sides. Thanks for sharing your experience.
December 1, 2013
Thanks for this - I met with a Himba group last year and the experience was incredible. Greeting everyone is critically important, and after that, pretty much anything goes (except approaching the headman's hut and his sacred fire). Personal questions and stories were fair game. Yes, I experienced their shock too that I had no children! Our guide told us that it is pretty common for both men and women to have extramarital affairs, and that all children of a woman are considered the children of her and her husband. He told us that if a man isn't home by sundown, he won't be allowed into his hut because his wife likely has a guest! But he likely wouldn't try, because he has probably run several kilometers to stay the night with his girlfriend. (And what shocked me about all of this was that he runs serval km but drinks no water!!) A woman demonstrated how to make the ochre paste and put some on my arm - my skin was super soft for a week. This magical concoction is makeup, perfume, deodorant, sunscreen, insect repellant and soap. I wear every day the bracelet I bought - made form PVC pipe ! Super cool experience, and thanks to Ultimate Safaris for arranging it.
December 9, 2013
@TravelEater - Thanks so much for sharing your experience, glad to hear you enjoyed it so much. I didn't know about the openness in regards to relationships, that is very interesting. Glad that you have a bracelet as a daily reminder of your experience.
December 2, 2013
Hi Laurel,I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post! After a year of living in Namibia and traveling throughout the country, visiting the Himba was one of my most memorable experiences. Yet I, too, felt strange about barging in on the Himba way of life and exposing them even more to western ways. I think the questions you pose are difficult to answer. I've asked them to myself so many times and still don't know if I did more harm than good by visiting the village. It sure is a wonderful and eye-opening experience for the traveler, though!Beautiful pictures!Erika
December 9, 2013
@bisbocciabroad - You lived in Namibia for a year? Wow! Agree that it an eye-opening and rare experience for travelers, even if the other questions can't be easily answered.
December 5, 2013
They are definitely shy! Lol. I think it's their way of art and that's how they express themselves. Photos look awesome. Captured the culture just right!
December 9, 2013
@Hannah - :)
Renuka
December 7, 2013
I am sure it must have been a very unusual experience for you guys. I have never seen something like this before!
December 21, 2013
@Renuka - I hadn't even heard about the Himba before. I still have mixed feelings about it but am glad I met them.
December 10, 2013
I love your shots Laurel. I am also worried. It will reach a point where different cultures will be eroded. I love westernization but it is affecting many cultures outside there.
December 22, 2013
Great story of the himba people. Its interesting to learn that bathing is only a preserve of the men. The kid that tries to flick your camera image to enlarge it simply made my day. You must have been shocked by that...hehe. Thats a seriously digital kid.
May 29, 2014
Thanks for sharing this extraordinary experience with us, Laurel! I spent one year in Ethiopia and met variety of people and I really believe that we can learn a lot of things about life and survival from them.
September 29, 2014
@Geri - Wow, living in Ethiopia must have been an incredible experience!
December 22, 2014
Wow! What a great experience Laurel. I love that she made sure that you did her hair justice. A typical woman:) (this is Deb speaking by the way! It goes to show, no matter how different we all seem, humans around the world are very similar. I'd love to visit this tribe.
December 22, 2014
@Deb - So true! I had mixed feelings, but love seeing the similarities between us, even when our cultures are so different!
October 1, 2015
What a great article! I met some Himba for a very short time in Namibia but would like more time to experience their culture. This has me a bit jealous, but I can also understand how a person would have conflicted feelings over it. To me the Himba are one of the most fascinating tribes in the world!
October 4, 2015
@Nathan - Agreed, the Himba are fascinating! That's where I get conflicted. The more contact we have with them, the more we're altering their way of life.
Dzvandatsvamulomun'ana
January 20, 2017
In 2013 you were surprised that the child knew how to play with your smart phone? Phones came in around 1998, in Africa, 15 years later, you were expecting YOU to be the child's first encounter with a phone? How naive!
January 24, 2017
I'm always surprised to see how quickly ALL young children adapt to technology, not just African ones. Not naive, just old :)

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